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Nevada Climate History


Nevada is much more than mining, gambling, buckaroos and vast desert country. It is a region of climatic extremes, a land where surface temperatures have soared to a sizzling 125 (June 1994) or plunged to an Arctic-like 50 below zero (January 1937). Nevada is characterized by isolated, long, narrow, roughly parallel mountain ranges and broad, intervening, nearly flat valleys and basins. The spectacular magnitude of alternating mountain ranges and valleys prompted the term "Basin and Range Province," a designation that includes most of Nevada. The climate of the Silver State is

Special thanks to Nevada State Climatologist John James for his generous and professional assistance in compiling these data.

characterized as semi-arid to arid with precipitation and temperature varying widely between the northern and southern regions of the State as well as between the valley floors and mountaintops. Temperatures can fall below minus 40 during winter in the northeastern region, and rise to over 120 during summer in the south. Precipitation ranges from barely three or four inches in southern Nevada to more than 40 inches (and over 300 inches of snowfall) in the Carson Range portion of the Sierra Nevada.

Few places in the world boast seasonal temperature swings of 175 Fahrenheit, but Nevada is certainly more unique than that. The Silver State has more mountain ranges than any other state except Alaska,

and ranks third in seismic activity behind Alaska and California. It is also the most parched in the Nation. Nevada may be dry and dusty today, but more than 200 million years ago the region was actually the floor of an ancient equatorial sea. At that time the west coast of the continental United States was near the western border of the State of Wyoming, and a continental shelf covered much of eastern Nevada and western Utah with deep ocean stretching from central Nevada westward. Sixty-foot-long prehistoric sea -lizards that thrived in the warm, equatorial waters of this ancient sea were later stranded in shallow mud flats as the land mass gradually rose and the water receded. These giant creatures, named Ichthyosaurs, were trapped and then died. After reigning the world's oceans for about 135 million years, the remains were buried under thousands of feet of sediment and fossilized. Over time the region was thrust violently upward to 7,000 feet above sea level, where in 1928 the fossilized remains of Ichthyosaurs were discovered. In 1977, some 200 million years after its entombment, Ichthyosaurus Shonisaurus popularis, named after the mountain range in which it was discovered (Shoshone), was immortalized as Nevada's official state fossil.

The Nevada we know today has existed for only the last few seconds of the total geologic clock of time. As recently as 10,000 years ago the region was considerably wetter than now and much of the land was covered with ancient lakes and expansive, lush grasslands that formed during the last Ice Age. One of the largest of these lakes was prehistoric Lake Lahontan, which extended for over 8,600 square miles and covered an irregular series of basins in northwestern Nevada. Even larger was Lake Bonneville, which at its peak extended for nearly 20,000 square miles and covered most of northwestern Utah and extended into northeastern Nevada and southern Idaho as well. As the climate became warmer and drier, the massive North American ice sheets receded northward toward the polar ice cap. The receding ice sheet dramatically changed Nevada's climate, wiping out entire animal species and withering the abundant vegetation. The region's water resources became isolated primarily in shrinking desert lakes or locked beneath the sedimentary layers of the State's numerous elongated valleys.

Total average precipitation in Nevada runs about 9 inches per year, making the Silver State the driest in the Nation.* Located within the arid Great Basin and on the lee side of the towering Sierra Nevada range, little maritime moisture reaches the State. The lofty peaks of the

Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee River, is a relic of prehistoric Lake Lahontan.

Sierra, which stretch along much of Nevada's western border, interrupt the prevailing easterly flow of moisture-laden winter storm systems that frequently roar in from the Pacific Ocean. The resultant "rain shadow" has desiccated the landscape. Some of the lower elevations receive less than four inches of precipitation annually while average lake surface evaporation rates can exceed more than 80 inches a year. Due to these high evaporation rates and lack of incoming moisture, the few rivers that do exist in Nevada end in sinks, not lakes. River drainage flows to enclosed basins rather than to the sea. Of the total annual average precipitation, only 10% contributes to stream runoff and ground-water recharge. The remaining 90% is lost through evaporation and transpiration.*

    *Precipitation is the combination of rain and melted snow.

This article has been broken into five sections for your convenience:

**This website has more on Nevada climate and precipitation.
 Here is more on
Nevada topography and hydrogeography.

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